UNI stands for the University of Northern Iowa whose tradition of producing first-rate big-band recordings spans more than two decades, first under director Bob Washut and more recently under his successor, Chris Merz (The Hard Way is the twentieth album by the university's Jazz Band One in my library). This is a "semi-live" date on which three of the ten numbers were recorded in concert, the others in a studio. In either setting, the band is stout as a rampart, the soloists sharp and engaging.
For his ninth cruise at the helm, Merz has chosen a number of contemporary themes that aren't often heard including compositions by Dave Liebman, Kenny Wheeler, Rick Hirsch (two), Jon Snell and Peter Apfelbaum and seasoned them with a Mary Lou Williams classic, "Roll 'Em," and Kenny Barron's more widely known "Voyage." Apfelbaum authored the brooding "It Is Written" and also designed "Introduction to The Hard Way" and the title theme itself. "Roll 'Em," Hirsch's "Lifeblood" and "Great Big Ball with a Map Wrapped Around It" were performed (according to the booklet) for an audience, although there is no applause or other signs of life on "Roll 'Em." The opener, Liebman's "New Breed," is essentially a showpiece for tenor saxophonists Nolan Schroeder and Nathan Temeyer who sprint through several choruses apiece without any audible missteps. The same is true for baritone Madeline Young, outstanding on her feature, "Great Big Ball." She solos trimly on clarinet on the playful "Roll 'Em" and Snell's brassy opus, "Tilian."
Vibraphonist Aaron Ottmar, bass trombonist Zach Gignac and alto saxophonist Gabe Scheid share blowing space on "The Hard Way," making the most of their sole appearance in the spotlight on the rhythmic and at times raucous tone poem. "Voyage" is an impressive closer, nimbly reinforcing earnest solos by alto Sam Peterson, trombonist Brian Crew and drummer Jeff Oatts. Schroeder and Crew solo on Hirsch's opulent "Lifeblood" and complement alto Sam Peterson and trumpeter Antonio Garza on Wheeler's graceful "Ballad to Max." Garza shines again on flugel ("Tilian") and trumpet ("Roll 'Em," during which Snell recreates Jess Stacy's piano solo as a prelude to lively asides by Young and Garza). Snell plays the seldom-heard melodica and violinist Walter Caldas takes a solo turn on "It Is Written."
A pleasing variety of mostly forward-leaning music, nicely chosen by Merz and admirably played by the band. While The Hard Way may not be the only way, it suits the UNI ensemble just fine, and you may find it to your liking as well.
New Breed; Life Blood; Ballad to Max; Tilian; Roll ‘Em; It Is Written; Great Big Ball with a Map Wrapped Around It; Into to The Hard Way; The Hard Way; Voyage.
Chris Merz: director; Antonio Garza: trumpet, flugelhorn; Ben Castle: trumpet, flugelhorn; Leah Schmidt: trumpet, flugelhorn; Erin Maltby: trumpet, flugelhorn; Wes Keene: trumpet, flugelhorn; Sam Petersen: alto sax; Gabe Scheid: alto sax; Nolan Schroeder: tenor sax; Nathan Temeyer: tenor sax; Madeline Young: baritone sax; Brian Crew: trombone; Jon Mallak: trombone (2, 7); Zac Cornell: trombone; Brian Martin: trombone(1, 3-6, 8-10); Zach Gignac: bass trombone; Walter Caldas: violin (6); Aaron Ottmar: vibraphone (8); Eric Atchison: guitar; John Snell: piano, melodica (6); Riley Scheetz: acoustic, electric bass; Cory Healey: drums (1-5, 8, 9); Jeff Oatts: drums (6, 7, 10).
All About Jazz & Jazz Near You were built to promote jazz music: both recorded albums and live events. We rely primarily on venues, festivals and musicians to promote their events through our platform. With club closures, limited reopenings and an uncertain future, we've pivoted our platform to collect, promote and broadcast livestream concerts to support our jazz musician friends. This is a significant but neccesary step that will help musicians and venues now, and in the future. You can help offset the cost of this essential undertaking by making a donation today. In return, we'll deliver an ad-free experience (which includes hiding the sticky footer ad). Thank you!
Get more of a good thing
Our weekly newsletter highlights our top stories and includes your local jazz events calendar.